William Sampsons Confessions of an Innocent Man: Torture and Survival in a Saudi Prison is a harrowing, deeply moving testimony to human endurance, and a valuable addition to the other accounts our times have provided about the effects of torture on the body and soul. Confessions in the title refers both to the fabrications Sampson was forced by torture to utter, write and sign, and to the account he gave freely after his release, which is devoted to telling the truth about his incarceration and torture.
The use of torture is ancient, the methods documented, named, and universal. Elaine Scarry, in her book The Body in Pain, says, Torture consists of a primary physical act, the infliction of pain and a primary verbal act, the interrogation. She adds, Intense pain is world-destroying. Sampsons book is about the attempted destruction of his world through torture and about his endeavour to maintain or reconstruct vestiges of his world to ensure that he was not demolished beyond the obliterating effects of the torture room.
In between periods of torture, he suffered the psychological anguish of anticipating and dreading the next session, and the torment of being shackled under constant artificial light in an upright position that made sleep impossible. Prolonged sleep deprivation induces terrifying hallucinations. The body after torture is still in pain. Simply to exist becomes painful and the prospect of death seems like a welcome release.
Since the person being tortured knows that if the pain goes on, he will break because there are limits to his endurance, why, we wonder, doesnt he confess at once? Hallucinating from lack of sleep, in agony from being beaten, Sampson says to himself, Hold on. I knew, he writes, that I would break soon enough, but each hour I resisted was an hour that I was not owned. The struggle is about not being owned. The trick is to find miniscule hiding places of the soul or psyche while the body undergoes the massive trespass of physical torture, which is also an attempt to eradicate the soul. Sampson devised a system of counting days by secreting grains of rice in a hole in his mattress, and marking each grain-a plain grain for a day, a crossed grain for a night without sleep, a soiled grain for a session of torture. He also secreted in his mouth small wads of paper, and wound bits of string surreptitiously around his fingers. Their value to him was in remaining undetected. As he says, Small and insignificant as these activities of mine might seem, they had a purpose: to help me to endure, to give me some minor sense of control, to create a small area of privacy in the physical world. He also did what the powerless have always done: he undermined the terrifying power of his torturers by giving them private names that mocked their authority.
The improvised and fragile systems for keeping track of passing days helped maintain a link to the world in which time unfolds in a orderly way, with hours counted, with light and dark. The irony in his narrative of torment is that it is the calls to prayer in the Muslim day that punctuate time and provide a respite from his torment. Over the hell of the torture chambers soared the enjoinder to pray. It is no wonder that he began to curse the supposed deity and prophet who, it seemed to him, presided over this monstrous farce.
At a low point in his ordeal, when rape had been added to his torture, and he fell into several hours of total nothingness, he remembered lines from a poem by Richard Lovelace: Stone walls do not a prison make, / Nor iron bars a cage / Hearts innocent and quiet take / this for an hermitage. / If I have freedom in my love / and in my soul am free / Angels alone, that soar above, / Enjoy such liberty. These words were for him an intellectual and emotional epiphany, and he recited them over and over. It was as if, he writes, as my own mind was losing its ability to protect itself against the onslaught, it reached out from within the stone walls and iron bars in which I was confined to the ideas and feelings of others, drawing from them the necessary strength with which to keep me alive . . . His captors owned his body but the words of long dead poets could unlock the door to freedom in his mind.
Later in his imprisonment, after he had suffered a heart attack as a result of the injuries inflicted on him and was no longer tortured with such severity for fear he might die in custody, he devised retaliations, which were in part revenge on his torturers, in part another attempt to strengthen and insulate his own self. He describes the logic underlying these various strategies: If I do it to myself first, demonstrate that I can endure it, then when you do it to me I will not be harmed by you, having become inured. Thus he willed himself not to read, not to eat, and not to wash, to show his tormentors that if he were deprived of books, food, and water, he would be able to endure. Aggressive retaliation took various forms: smashing up whatever was provided, blaspheming against and degrading the Koran, shredding the culturally approved garment, using what his body produced-urine, feces- to extend himself into and take control of his space, by making it repellent to his tormentors. Since he had been reduced to his body, his body was all he had, and he used it to attack and defend.
Sampsons account raises the question of negligence on the part of the Canadian government in handling his case. All his meetings with representatives of the Canadian government were conducted in the presence of his torturers, which violated recognised diplomatic norms. Why did Canadian consular officials not demand a private interview? Sampson says that Canadian officials had been told that since the Koran forbids torture, he could not have been tortured. Yet it was obvious to anyone who saw Sampson in the video of his confession, released by the Saudi Arabian government early in 2001, that something terrible had been done to this man. How could this not have been obvious to Canadian officials? Since his captors had threatened to harm his father, Sampson made it clear that he did not want his father to enter Saudi Arabia. Despite his wishes, Canadian officials insisted on the meetings. Because these visits took place in the presence of his torturers, it was impossible for Sampson to tell the truth, so Sampson attempted to communicate with his father by uttering one word as his father left: If, the title of a poem by Rudyard Kipling about the virtue of human endurance, spoken to let his father know that he was suffering the worst and managing to stand up to it.
The attempts of the Canadian embassy to intervene became a circus of misunderstandings. Sampson remains convinced that the Canadian government had adopted an official stance that accepted my guilt without question. He began to suspect, and believes this still, that Canadian embassy officials were more interested in accommodating his captors and avoiding a diplomatic incident than in assisting him or his family. Consequently, he began to refuse all embassy visits. He was outraged by what he perceived as a neglectful attitude towards him, and by the fact that his fathers life had been endangered. Upon his release, he refused to have anything to do with Canadian officials, dealing with the British instead, since he has dual citizenship. The representatives of the Canadian government in Saudi Arabia failed Sampson in three fundamental ways: in not acquiring the necessary information about the regime that held him captive, in not demanding his diplomatic rights, and in failing to imagine-to picture from their comfortable vantage point-the barbaric conditions in which Sampson was held prisoner.
Solitary confinement, torture, and sodomy are painful and terribly degrading. Being forced to incriminate ones innocent friends, to fabricate lies about ones past, is soul-destroying. Sampson was determined to retain, if he could, a core of physical and emotional integrity and to survive somehow whole on the inside. He emerged from his ordeal with a fragile but intact sense of self, with a touching appreciation for any gesture of human kindness, and with a profound need to be believed, to have his torture acknowledged.
He does not forgive, but he concedes that his torturers were instrumental in his discovery of his own humanity. A person who has been tortured remains for the rest of his or her life a survivor of torture. A country that institutionalises torture should be shunned by other nations. No country that sees itself as a member of an enlightened global society should allow itself to look the other way. A human being with William Sampsons integrity is of inestimable value to any country. If one can find any solace in Sampsons story, especially in view of how ineffectively Canadas government had dealt with his imprisonment, its the fact that our nation has nurtured a man of this quality. If Sampson still consents to call himself Canadian, I am proud to call myself his fellow citizen. A. J. Mallinson
(Books in Canada)
-- Books in Canada